Congress’ Lok Sabha Manifesto: It really isn’t sunshine and rainbows for the Queer Community

Read Time: 12 minutes

The election season has started. Political parties have begun releasing their manifestos in their bid to appeal to the electorate to vote for them. As expected, the manifestos, theyare either worded too capaciously or teeter on edge of hyperbole. While political parties have long framed their manifestos in this fashion to sway the voters, this electoral dynamic has undergone a radical change in recent times. Thepublic, which is empowered with streams of information, can no longer be fooled with belated gestures or recycled promises. Manifestos released by political parties are rigorously analyzed against hard facts and realism. In each election cycle, the public demands actionable policies over superlatives, and innovative strides over redundant commitments.

For example, the Indian National Congress in its 48 pages long manifesto has promised to change Article 15 and 16 of the Constitution to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of “sexual orientation”. Although one can say that the promise of an anti-discrimination provision is needed to secure the equal protection guarantee for the queer community, including marriage-equality, the reality is quite the opposite. Even if the constitution is amended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation”, it would bring no change to the status quo. This is because three constitutional provisions, Article 14, 15 and 16 – collectively known as the Equality Code, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, already injunct the State from discriminating on the basis of “sexual orientation”. In Justice KS Puttaswamy(Retd.) v. Union of India and Ors., a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court, while determining whether a right of privacy is a constitutionally protected fundamental right, made clear that discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation” is unconstitutional. In particular, the Court held:

“Discrimination against an individual on the basis ofsexual orientation is deeply offensive to the dignity and self-worth of the individual. Equality demands that the sexual orientation of each individual in society must be protected on an even platform. The right to privacy and the protection of sexual orientation lie at the core of the fundamental rights guaranteed by Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution”.

Decisions before and after Puttaswamy, such as NALSAand Navtej Johar have reiterated this dictum to hold that the guarantee of equal protection prohibits discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation”. Bearing this constitutional position in mind, it is difficult to see how a constitutional amendment to ban discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation” breaks new ground in our constitutional journey. Promise of this constitutional amendment is no better than promising smartphones to a generation that’s pondering what comes after the internet. Apart from its symbolic value, it has no other constitutional significance. It is an old wine served in a new bottle.

Despite the glaring futility of the constitutional amendment the Congress has proposed in its manifesto, some members of the queer community might still further believe that the protection of “sexual orientation” under Articles 15 and 16 would guarantee them marriage-equality. This, again, is entirely misplaced. In the Marriage Equality Case, Ravindra Bhat, J., who wrote the Court’s majority opinion, after exhaustively scanning the privacy line of cases the Supreme Court had decided, held that the right to marry is not a fundamental right guaranteed by Constitution. In his view, the decisions of the Court, including Puttaswamy and NavtejJohar, contained broad generalizations regarding the right to choose one’s partner. Those broad observations, according to him, offered no support for the proposition that the Constitution guaranteed a fundamental right to marry for same-sex couples. 

In short, what the court held was this: The Constitution guarantees a right against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Still, however, that guarantee cannot be invoked to locate a constitutional foundation for a fundamental right to marry. 

Now, for a moment, let us entertain this hypothetical odyssey charted by the Congress in view of the aforesaid constitutional position: Suppose the stars do indeed arrange themselves so auspiciously that the Congress gets voted topower; suppose further they galvanize a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament; and suppose still further that they enacted the constitutional amendment (although thepossibilities of all this coming true are few and far between as of now). Even then, the dream of marriage equality for same-sex couples would remain just that—a dream—absent the enactment of corresponding legislation to recognize such unions.

The Congress’ poll promise to amend the Constitution to prohibit discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation” is thus the legislative equivalent of a host dressing up for dinner, but only serving appetizers. It seeks to bring no substantive change in the constitutional rights of same sex couples. Rather, in feigning ignorance of the prevailing constitutional position, the manifesto exposes the insincerity of the Congress party in empathizing with the plight of the queer community. 

And this insincerity is unsurprising. Around 2012, when the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court heard the constitutional challenge to decriminalize same-sex relationships, the same Congress party, which was in power at the Centre during that time, defended the validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Its official position before both the courts on Section 377 was this: “[P]ublic morality of homosexual conduct might open floodgates of delinquent behaviour” and the “risky” sexual behavior of same-sex couples might increase the risk of HIV/AIDS in female sexual workers as compared to “normal” human beings. These statements are clear evidence of the party’s open abhorrencefor queer couples. 

In light of the clear dissonance between past actions and present promises, the queer community must critically assess the true weight of this lip service, measuring the seriousness of the promise made by the Congress party not simply in words but in its deeds and historic actions. Manifestos,generally, reflect the intentions of a political party. If a party is lazy and insincere in crafting its manifesto, it is highly probable that it will also deviate from fulfilling the promises made within that manifesto.